Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory
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Category — Photographic

The Panoptic Exodus

“He always said that even the best actor knows that the camera is pointed at him, and that the spontaneity, the innocence, the beauty of expression on a face cannot be truly captured except when the person is not conscious of being photographed.”
Peter Blum on Chris Marker

PanopticonFirst off, there’s the lingering taste of an assumption that borders on what once was called by the dialecticians of enlightenment the ‘jargon of authenticity.’ The mind drifts around the thought eddy that the human photographic subject as actor, by the mere conscious knowledge of being filmed or photographed, loses something ineffable, some bit of truth in self-presentation to the world. Clandestine documentary, on the other hand, offers heroically to capture this lost parcel of authenticity (the long lost Benjaminian aura?), the subject unaware of the means of reproduction that causes, if even minimally, a change in visual self-presentation.

One could surmise that, following Foucault’s ‘panoptism’, the world of the photographic unconscious—that is, the pristine subject—may actually have to a large degree disappeared; there is now, especially in urban zones, always the presumption of the camera—not the camera of the clandestine artist, but the surveillance apparatus: ubiquitous, proliferating, causing adjustments of behavior by its very presence, as did the central tower of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, whether occupied by an agent of surveillance or unoccupied and merely virtually present as visual threat, implied in the very design that strips one of privacy. The Eye of Mordor, always searching for the Ring, and its bearer.

One might go further and think that the very proliferation of cameras in public spaces gives rise to a kind of disinterest or banality of the quotidian, such that the modification of one’s own comportment in public space undergoes a subtle reversal. The subject, in this scenario, grows so accustomed to the idea of being captured (literally and figuratively), inscribed into the machinic memory system, that it is no longer necessary to internalize the surveillance apparatus, no longer necessary to adjust one’s behavior always already towards auto-surveillance and self-policing.

One can see this small thought of liberation from panoptism play out in the occupy movements, as they escalate a reclaiming of public space to promote a disregard for the old kafka-type spys and the Panopticon in favor of a new modality. This new modality takes the means of reproduction available on cell phones, plugged as they are into the social media machine, and turns it against power, forcing the police into their own situation of panoptism, of the eternal possibility of being recorded, posted to a viral social media machine that propagates a kind of anti-panoptism, without central tower, without Castle, without Eye.

However, with these thoughts we are still in the mode of duality, of power and resistance—but the moment for this paradigm, long pronounced dead, to truly disappear may not yet have come, simply because the still somehow Empowered, fully equipped with their police forces, armies and crumbling economies, while certainly on their way out, have maddeningly not quite gone away. The King may be dethroned but then one has to deal with the military, as in Egypt.

Nonetheless, the Kafka informants, perhaps epitomized best in the DDR Stazi (that is, Stalinist) system of syping and informing on your neighbor, may have jumped ship and come to work for another, masterless enterprise that itself is less capable of or interested in hierarchical control due to its rhizomatic and viral nature—and for those very reasons baffling to the older machines of technology (panoptism) and social paranoia (informants).

For documentary theory, the real has long been suspect and documentarists, including Heisenberg and ‘reverse ethnographers’ (like the unsurpassed Jean Rouch), have long known that the camera trained on a subject changes the subject. Marker himself shows back in Lettre de Sibérie how montage of documentary footage combined with commentary can present a potentially endless series of possible realities, each virtually co-existing, products of choices of mise-en-scène, montage and the vital, flexible relations of voice/text and image. The old Kuleshov effect fed into a fractal generator…

Our thoughts here, laid out in some haste and worthy someday of greater elaboration, are triggered by this video (below) and in particular the quote (above) in which Peter Blum speaks of Marker’s photographs on the occasion of the recent exhibition at Arles. Revisiting Marker’s old metaphor of photography as a hunt: “La photo, c’est la chasse, c’est l’instinct de chasse sans l’envie de tuer. C’est la chasse des anges… On traque, on vise, on tire et — clac! au lieu d’un mort, on fait un éternel.” There is as much a recognition of the primordial violence of photographic inscription here as there is the dream of its transformation into an art of peace.

Video Source: Arles : les portraits numériques de Chris Marker

December 21, 2011   No Comments

Chris Marker Passengers at Peter Blum Gallery


The following is a press release we received from the Peter Blum Gallery in New York. If you’re in the Big Apple, enjoy!

Chris Marker

April 2 – June 4, 2011

Peter Blum is pleased to announce the exhibition Chris Marker, PASSENGERS. This exhibition, opening on April 2, 2011, will be presented at both Peter Blum Soho (99 Wooster Street) and Peter Blum Chelsea (526 West 29th Street). This will be Chris Marker’s third solo exhibition with the gallery.

The exhibition is comprised of more than two hundred photographs taken by Marker between 2008 and 2010. The series, which is Marker’s first in color, are images of passengers traveling on the Paris Métro.

PASSENGERS captures the many private actions and gestures that take place daily in the public sphere. Mothers cradling their children, couples whispering intimately, women wistfully staring out the window or into the middle distance, engrossed in their own personal thoughts. In several of the shots, we see whole train cars filled with similarly disengaged people. Taken as a complete body of work, this series very clearly illustrates the various ways in which people create invisible walls and boundaries in order to cope with modern urban life. Chris Marker further to the photographs he takes, enhances, changes or colors his images on the computer, giving them often an eerie, almost otherworldly presence.

All of the images will be reproduced in a book published by Peter Blum Edition, which will be released in conjunction with the exhibition. The book will feature over two hundred color images with texts by Chris Marker and Peter Blum.

The exhibition will travel to France where it will be included as part of the internationally renowned Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographie Festival in the Summer of 2011.

You can visit the Peter Blum Gallery’s Chris Marker page at

April 8, 2011   No Comments

In a Train of the Métro by John Fitzgerald

[Guest post by John Fitzgerald. Thanks John! - ed.]

Walking over to Peter Blum Gallery in Chelsea to see the new Chris Marker exhibition, I happened to pass by a section of the newly completed High Line, a pedestrian greenspace retrofitted onto an old elevated train track on the West Side. I stopped to look at a curious feature of the renovation: a glass panel cut into the side of the wall overlooking Tenth Avenue. Behind the glass was tiered seating where people sat and watched the traffic beneath them and the pedestrians walking by. The whole image reminded me of a movie theater—tiered seating all facing a rectangular screen—except instead of a screen, there was glass, and instead of a film, there was The Street. Turning onto 29th Street to go to the gallery, I couldn’t think of a better prelude to Marker’s exhibition about watching people on the trains in Paris.

“Chris Marker: ‘Quelle heure est-elle?’” is a meditation on spectacle. Comprised of pieces selected from the early and latter periods of his career as an artist, filmmaker, and photographer, all are united by Marker’s fierce attention to the world around him, be they images of war or faces in the Métro, pictures in magazines or movie posters of imaginary films. The images that make up the exhibition’s title consist of a series of thirty-six black and white photographs of people riding the Métro in Paris between 2004 – 2008. In order to capture his subjects “truer to their inner selves,” he explains, he used a digital wristwatch camera—thereby coming a long way from the 16mm silent film camera that he boldly employed in the crowded trains of Tokyo for Sans Soleil in 1983. “Here I caught them innocent like animals, in the beauty of the jungle,” he notes.1 And while the people he captures—predominantly women—are certainly less aware of his gaze than in much of his previous work, some of the images, while very beautiful, still seem to fall short of being entirely natural. Perhaps the innocence that Marker has sought in images throughout his career is not necessarily more attainable merely with a new technology. As he acknowledges, in this age of the cellphone camera, we are more cognizant of being watched than ever before, and the subway, with its absence of anything interesting in the windows except mirror-like reflections, only heightens this sense. But Marker, for me, is a writer more than he is anything else, and while these photographs are ponderous to look at, I miss the breathless, evocative commentary that accompanies such images in his films. Commentary, in this instance, may be unnecessary though. Why articulate in prose something already so perfectly expressed by Ezra Pound in his poem, “In a Station of the Metro”: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet black bough”? This was to be Marker’s epigraph in his previous exhibition, “Staring Back,” in 2007. He dropped it at the time, but was struck by how a reviewer, seeing the photographs, began his review by quoting this poem. “So it was true, after all,” Marker writes, “there existed such a thing as poetry, whose ways are by nature different from the ways of the world, that makes one see what was kept hidden, and hear what was kept silent.”

The exhibition is also comprised of a series of other outstanding works including Coréennes (1957), photographs of North Koreans going about their largely agricultural daily lives, pictures of what essentially, to this day, remains a hidden society. Though at the time—and even today—they were inhabitants of one of the most isolated countries on the planet, Marker’s images of North Koreans have almost the same nonchalant intimacy of his femmes du Métro on the opposite wall. They are images seemingly suspended in time, and—except for the occasional intrusion of some pre-modern technological advancement like a bicycle—would have been as familiar to a traveler two centuries earlier as they were to Marker during the height of the Cold War. Considering how rare it is to be able to glimpse inside of North Korean society, the mere existence of these images merit their exhibition; that they are meditative on an artistic level as well is only to Marker’s credit. Invited by the country’s communist government in the wake of the Korean War, Marker enjoyed an almost unheard of amount of freedom in documenting the conditions beyond the thirty-eighth parallel. Where, in Sans Soleil, Marker trained his camera lens on a hyperactively open and “connected” Japanese society on the precipice of major economic expansion and found penetrating mysteries and rituals behind the veneer of everyday mundanity, in Coréennes he peers into a fanatically closed world and reveals how truly accessible it seems. We see the women of the countryside, pensive, the schoolgirls holding aloft their fans and preparing for a dance. There are no images of tanks or infinite crowds furiously saluting the Great Leader. Even before the sixties Marker was already post-political. His focus is the people, the daily life. Of the war he only wrote: “When a country is split in two by an artificial border and irreconcilable propaganda is exercised on each side, it’s naïve to ask where the war comes from: the border is the war.”2

The Hollow Men (2005), also on view, is a multi-screen installation depicting images of twentieth-century conflict—beginning with the First World War—against textual interstices of lines variously inspired by, or taken from, T.S. Eliot’s poem of the same name. Here, too, we are spectators, and as in his other works the focus so often is on faces. One passage begins, “’I’LL BE SEEING YOU’ / WAS OUR SONG / LESS THAN 80 SEASONS LATER / FOR EVERY WAR HAS A SONG.”

I’ll be seeing you. The irony, of course, is that a man who has spent so much of his life pointing his camera lens at others should himself remain shrouded in obscurity. The gallery’s artist biography merely indicates that Marker was born in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in 1921 and that he “lives and works in Paris.” Though he was a member of the most luminary generation of French auteurs in the history of cinema, he is still sufficiently unknown for a popular New York magazine to confidently claim him as an “avant-garde American filmmaker.”3 Presumably, without this veil of mystery, he would never be able to get as close to his subjects as he does. And while he may not be American, his preoccupation with looking at The Street—in Paris, in Pyongyang, in Tokyo—is literally, in something as small as that viewing area on the High Line, gaining ground in this country. Somehow, I imagine Chris Marker wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon perched up there over Tenth Avenue looking at all the people passing below.

1. Chris Marker, “Quelle heure est-elle?” published on the occasion of the exhibition “Chris Marker: “Quelle heure est-elle?” at Peter Blum Gallery, New York, May 16-July 31, 2009.
2. Chris Marker, Coréenes (1957, Editions du Seuil, Paris)
3. “A wonderfully rich retrospective of the avant-garde American filmmaker . . . .” The L Magazine

June 14, 2010   1 Comment

Traveling Without Moving

MetroDavid Thomson, author of the classic A Biographical Dictionary of Film as well as books on Hitchcock, Welles and Brando, recently published a thoughtful reflection on Chris Marker’s photograph series taken in the Paris metro. The piece is called “Chris Marker’s Underground” and is can be viewed at The New Republic’s “Slideshow” blog.

Marker’s territory for chasing images may have changed in the 21st century as his global explorations became less frequent, but his backyard as found in his viewfinder remains a world unto itself, as this series of photos (7 are reproduced with his permission in Thomson’s article) and of course the movie Chats perchés [The Case of the Grinning Cat] reveal.

In contemplating the nomad who does not travel outside the city, I’m reminded of a passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus:

There are not only strange voyages in the city but voyages in place: we are not thinking of drug users, whose experience is too ambiguous, but of true nomads. We can say of the nomads, following Toynbee’s suggestion: they do not move. They are nomads by dint of not moving, not migrating, of holding a smooth space that they refuse to leave, that they leave only in order to conquer and die. Voyage in place: that is the name of all intensities, even if they also develop in extension. To think is to voyage… [532]

Or, as the master of ambient Pete Namlook puts it more succinctly, “traveling without moving.” [Air II CD].

In narrowing the circle of travel in earthspace, Marker has only become more of a nomad. The truncation of the world to one’s own city finds its looking glass counter-world not only in the underground and the elegant graffiti mysteries of M. Chat, but also and no less profoundly in Marker’s migration to Second Life, a world without end, a fractal archipelago that allows the voyager-in-place to meet others without moving, to pass through without moving, to visit spaces by jumping coordinates, to remain a fixed point in an expanding universe of travel and aleatory encounter.

The metro also takes us back to the hypnotic dream sequences of Sans Soleil in the Japanese commuter trains. It is here that we may have first slipped into the Zone, where Marker filmed the drifted-off bodies being taken, consciousness slipping into unconsciousness, from point of departure to point of arrival. The interim is filled with imagination, projected images from Japanese television of their potential dreams. Why the Zone? Because the Zone is the machine of derealization, the slippage mechanism that takes one imperceptibly from document to dream, and serves in a manner so subtle to be subliminal to silently replace the limited audio-visual faculties of film with an unbounded imagination.

The Zone makes of the tourist a nomad memory device, but all the memories flip immediately into machine memory, and from there into phantasm. These phantasm-traces form the fundamental building blocks of a kind of network, a relay system of the imagination that stiches the borders of documentary and fiction and then removes the stitches. It is a mobile architecture of memory, a digital descendant of the ancient art of memory evoked by Marker in Immemory, but no longer glued to the commonplaces of the rhetorical tradition.

Montaigne writes of friendship: “En l’amitié de quoi je parle, elles nos âmes se mêlent et confondent l’une en l’autre, d’un mélange si universel qu’elles effacent et ne retrouvent plus la couture qui les a jointes.” We live today in this space of erased stitching that is that of friendship, the still life as nomad, and the Zone.

Thomson’s speculations on place and name, his wry Markerian references such as Ulan Bator (a place-name that has messed with film biographers such as himself), and his own dreamlike projection-reflections carry on the work of the imagination that surfaces in the dream commuters of Marker’s foray into the Zone. But it must be said as well that the photographs he displays and discusses are also and primarily just what they are, without addition: light and camera in-between action, and always the implied presence of the photographer, himself unphotographed.

Portraits that are always also self-portraits with the stiches removed. People lifted out of the flow of the quotidian into the lens. Everlasting beings caught in the moment, nameless but respected. As Marker long ago wrote: On traque, on vise, on tire et — clac! au lieu d’un mort, on fait un éternel. He may be saying, all these years later, that instead of war one makes a friend.

May 28, 2010   No Comments

Sandor Krasna’s Photostream

Thanks to Tyler Beaman for pointing us to this growing archive of Chris Marker aka Sandor Krasna photography. No stranger to new media, Marker’s pseudonymous forays into social media sites are atypical not only of his generation, but several following ones. An artist of many media, an Eye with many names, a being of “unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen,” out of or beyond time yet always keenly in the present, he retains his inimitable interest in the conjunction of the human visage and the display of resistance to power that can still, at times, leave the screen-world and take to the streets. Check out the Sandor Krasna Flickr photostream at

Lecture-marathon de la Princesse de Clèves par de jeunes chercheurs en grève, devant le Panthéon

July 10, 2009   3 Comments

Mayday Flâneur

Thanks to Edo M for bringing these semi-precious gems of photographs by Chris Marker – who hit the streets on the occasion of the May 1st “celebration” in Paris – to our attention.

Et Chris Marker, le réalisateur du « Fond de l’air est rouge » et de « Chats perchés », ces deux films chargés d’histoire, de témoigner de cette obstination tranquille, de cette tension qui les tient, ces manifestants de l’an 09. Lui qui n’a cessé, depuis cet après-guerre pourtant salement noirci de luttes extrêmes jusqu’à ce début de millénaire désenchanté, à accompagner les mouvements sociaux, est à l’écoute—si tant est qu’un œil puisse être à l’écoute ! Observant comme nul autre la présence de jeunes, de femmes et de familles, hors des classiques bataillons syndicaux du 1er Mai, eux aussi mobilisés. Et si certains affichent un « Rêve générale », celui-ci, sous l’effet de la politique sarkozyste, vire au cauchemar généralisé…
annick rivoire, poptronics

Edo M also sent us something unbelievably special. Chasseur du maître-chasseur. Knowing the master’s predilection for staying behind the camera, it was a tough call, but here’s the link: Scroll down to the bottom to see the photo and video: Vidéo (un plan de 73 secondes) faite avec un appareil photographique par Jean-Louis Boissier.

Given the immediacy of the gaze throughout Marker’s photographic work, we are reminded of a passage of his in A Farewell to Movies:

Reactions of people photographed or filmed outdoors are rarely hostile, but almost never natural. Either they cringe, be it in a wink, or they hide their camera-consciousness by overreacting. My dream was to be able to catch them as I did animals, in pure naturalezza. A new toy allowed me to try it: the Casio wrist camera. You ostensibly check the time, and the person in front of you is caught. That small apparatus immediately triggered the title I would give to the experiment: What time is she? (I’ve got an unfashionable tendency to prefer women in my lens). Then I carried on with different devices, but I kept the title.

Marker’s referenced photo series, “Qu’elle heure est-elle?” – which obviously loses time in the translation – is currently showing at the Peter Blum Gallery in New York, May 16 2009—July 31 2009.

Source: Thanks for enabling object embedding!

June 3, 2009   5 Comments